It would take a team of forensic pathologists three months to finally piece together sufficient fragments, shards, and scraps of documents to determine that his name had been Karl Stodden. Not enough fragments, shards, and scraps of his body remained to permit a more typical and routine identification. How he came to be in the once-resplendent, once-immaculately pearl-white Bentley Silverstone that was now a motley collection of wracked, wrenched, and charred metal strewn in a fifty-yard radius centered on a three-foot deep crater was easily explained once his identity was established – the motorcar belonged to him. But why it came to be reduced to its present condition as it sat in the driveway leading up to his comfortable house in Staffordshire was anybody’s guess. It was self-evident that his demise was no accident: motorcars, as a rule, and Bentleys in particular, do not suddenly erupt in spontaneous detonations comparable in size and power to the explosion of four pounds of Composition 6. In point of fact, traces of the compound were detected by chemical “sniffers” at the scene within minutes of the authorities’ arrival, a result which at once simplified and complicated the investigation.
The murder of Karl Stodden on the 26th day of May 2035 had been ruthlessly efficient, but it was also strangely merciful. Rather than subject Stodden to needless pain or brutality, whomever was responsible had ensured that he would be dead before his mind and body could even begin to comprehend that they were dying – but why do so? That was one part of the riddle posited by the shattered Bentley. And the other was like unto it: why kill in such a spectacular fashion a balding, slightly overweight, middle-aged asthmatic who four years earlier had retired from a mid-level Foreign Office posting for health reasons?
Answers didn’t begin to resolve themselves until August 28, the same day that Blade, accompanied by Spazz, landed at Glasgow International Airport at 5:50 in the morning, having flown directly from Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States of America, where they had met for the first time. Why resolving the riddle of Karl Stodden’s death touched on Blade came about because of one of the last bits of reconstruction done by New Scotland Yard’s forensic labs. The boffins there were able to piece together a corner of a letter that had been stowed in Stodden’s briefcase, revealing a name and address: Major Sir David Ian Andrew MacLaren, CMG, DSO, MC, Mont Creag House, Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Scotland, FK19….
“Ah, there you are. I should have known you’d be working on one of these old rattletraps this early in the morning. Anyway, Mrs. Sinclair asked me to tell you that she’s about to set out breakfast, and if you let it get cold, she will be most displeased. So get your ass up off the floor and out to the terrace!”
MacLaren had been sitting cross-legged on the floor of his garage, his back to the doorway, focused on rebuilding the Roots supercharger for his 1955 Jaguar XK140 when Maureen walked in and made her announcement. Turning around at the sound of her voice, he smiled almost in spite of himself. She was barefoot, wore a pair of blue denim jeans that looked as though they had been painted on, and sported a white t-shirt bearing the words “I’m a Lady with the Vocabulary of a Well-Educated Sailor.” That was a gift from MacLaren – it had arrived yesterday.
“Well, ye seem deplorably perky this morning. Slept well, did ye?”
“I did – I think I’m finally over my jet lag, and I’m starting to learn my way around this old pile.”
“‘Old pile’, is it? Ye ken this is my home, don’t ye, lass?”
“I know – and my guest suite really is nice. But as for the rest of it, who the hell was your decorator, Attila MacHun?”
“As a matter of fact, I think it was. He had much better taste than Genghiz Khanbell….” Blade grinned as Spazz rolled her eyes and threw up her hands in mock despair, then his expression grew serious when he saw her wince as she dropped her arms.
“How’s the shoulder?”
“Considering that if we’d been using real blades you would have cut off my fucking arm, it’s fine!” The asperity in her voice wasn’t entirely feigned.
“And as it is?”
Rather than respond directly, Spazz turned her left shoulder toward him and lifted the sleeve of her t-shirt until it revealed a deep-blue and purple bruise at least three inches long. After a moment she said, “What do you think?”
“I think ye should have worn the padded sparring jacket like I suggested ye do.”
“Those things are too damned hot – and they restrict my movements too much!”
“I also think ye should practice with off-hand opponents more.”
“Fine, I’ll see you down in the salle again tomorrow morning.”
The previous day, as she continued the exploration of Mont Creag House she’d begun three days earlier – MacLaren had given her the complete run of both house and grounds, trusting Alistair, his VI, to keep a watchful eye on her lest she get into trouble – Maureen had come across the salle in the lower level (the house had four), where Blade did his edged-weapons training. She found Blade and Sandy Young, MacLaren’s major domo, armourer, and a retired BSM of the Black Watch, facing off with a pair of wood-bladed, basket-hilted broadswords, engaged in a sparring match that could only be described as…enthusiastic. Despite being nearly two decades Blade’s senior, Sandy had bested MacLaren seven points to five.
Knowing that Blade’s two cracked ribs had only partially healed, but not realizing just how skilled – and cunning – Sandy truly was, or that he had been Blade’s swordmaster for more than a decade and thus knew every one of his employer’s moves – plus several his employer had yet to discover – Spazz mistakenly concluded that while MacLaren might be an above-average swordsman, his skills weren’t exceptionally outstanding, and impulsively decided that she would go a few rounds with him. After all, she’d spent almost as long training in kendō as she had in aikidō, nigh on twenty years: perhaps she could show MacLaren a trick or two of her own.
She’d lost, seven to nil, and as a parting gift took a small but painful collection of bruises with her.
As he recalled the match, Blade smiled inwardly. If the bruising from the strike on her shoulder was that pronounced, he had no doubt the one across Spazz’s firmly-packed bottom was easily its equal. He’d caught her out of position, on the wrong foot, totally vulnerable: with a wicked grin he smartly “thwacked” the flat of his practice blade across her buttocks to make the point. She was good, there was no denying that – clearly she’d taken her kendō training seriously, and her aikidō skills were fierce, as MacLaren had learned to his own painful dismay the day before.
She hadn’t exactly been tossing him about the hand-to-hand salle at will, but he did find himself thumping the floor more often than he liked. Her two-inch advantage in both height and reach gave her the leverage to cancel out much of the benefit MacLaren would have had given his five stone advantage in weight. Spazz also had the good sense to know that the first rule of hand-to-hand combat, no matter what style, was to fight dirty – MacLaren paid a silent compliment to whomever was the instructor who taught her that. But she had yet to learn to be that sort of brawler when she had a sword in hand: her style lacked fluidity, it was too formal, too stiff and predictable, as though she were thinking about her moves as she made them, rather than letting them simply flow from one to the next. MacLaren made a mental note to himself to speak with the BSM: he had no idea how long Maureen would be staying at Mont Creag House, but while she was here, Sandy might be willing to offer her the odd afternoon or two of instruction.
For more than a century training with swords had been relegated to the status of an archaic hobby and a conditioning exercise; unquestionably it honed the reflexes and improved situational awareness, but so deeply had the cliché “Never bring a knife to a gunfight” become ingrained into the popular consciousness that people forgot how, in the right places at the right times, long blades still had their uses – and sometimes the primacy. By the year 2035, however, edged weapons were surprisingly relevant again, most notably for people in Spazz and Blade’s line of work. Both of them were armed operatives for hire – “solos” in the common parlance – who found employment in specialized security work, protective services, bounty hunting, and the like. People for whom the application of physical violence, in the hope of preventing further violence on the part of whoever provoked them, was their stock in trade. Weaponry, in any form, whatever was to hand, were the tools of that trade, and the effective use of a sword was now considered a requisite skill set for any solo who had aspirations to top-rank status.
Naturally, it was the French who were to blame for this. Walking sticks had suddenly become all the vogue on the streets of Paris in the weeks following Black Christmas, though they were being carried by men and women alike more for their mace-like defensive value vis-a-vis knife- and cleaver-wielding homicidal hadjis than as icons of fashion. The French being the French, of course, that soon changed, but along with the more outré designer creations, variations of the cane sword quickly made their appearance among people who sported walking sticks, and sensible people who carried them decided that it might be helpful if they actually knew how to use them. Hence the rebirth of long-blade weapons skills – and need for solos to acquire and hone them.
“Hey, MacLaren, did you hear me or have you gone deaf and senile?”
Blade shook himself out of his reverie and looked at Spazz. “Sorry, gathering wool. What did ye say?”
“I said, ‘Are you coming in to breakfast or are you going to face the wrath of Mrs. Sinclair?”
“I’m neither brave nor foolish enough to run that sort of risk! Let me get this muck off my hands and I’ll be in directly.” He reached for a shop towel and a tin of degreasing paste and began vigorously scrubbing both hands. Once satisfied that the worst of the dirt and grime was gone, he moved over to the shop sink and washed thoroughly. Mrs. Sinclair, his tyrannical gem of a cook and housekeeper, no more tolerated unwashed hands at table than she did tardiness in getting there. A couple of quick passes with a dry towel and he was ready to go.
“Right, then. Lead on, Miss Collins!”
Their timing was, MacLaren noted thankfully, nearly perfect. They arrived on the terrace just as Mrs. Sinclair, tall, slender, her reddish hair gracefully edging into gold-tinged grey, brought out a serving tray with two covered plates on it and placed it on the sideboard. MacLaren held Maureen’s chair for her as she seated herself at the table, and hid a smile when he noted how gingerly she settled herself on the cushion.
He took his own seat as Mrs. Sinclair lifted one plate from the tray, then with a smile that transformed her habitually severe expression into one that was strikingly attractive, placed it in front of Spazz and whisked off the stainless steel cover to present a classic “full Scottish breakfast.”
“This is a welcome change, Miss Collins,” she said, her BBC-esque English accent at odds with the Scots burrs that usually flew about Mont Creag. “The Major usually just parks his carcass in my kitchen and has his ‘breakfast’ – all two mugs of it – at the table there. How a man can start his day on nothing but tea is quite beyond me.” She glanced at MacLaren with only a hint of smugness. “Now that you’re over your jet-lag and the two of you can take breakfast together, I can prove to him that I haven’t yet forgotten the proper way to serve it as well.” Reaching for the tray, she took the other plate, set it before MacLaren and lifted the cover with a flourish only slightly less pronounced than the one she’d produced for Maureen. “I’ll bring the tea directly.”
Spazz watched her stride off and was barely able to suppress a giggle until Mrs. Sinclair was out of earshot. “She’s priceless! Where did you ever find her?”
“Actually, it was she who found me – or rather, found us.”
“‘Us’?” She cocked an eyebrow at Blade. “Better ‘splain that to me.”
He shifted in his seat, then spent a moment slicing up the pair of bangers on his plate, mixing them in with his beans. Without looking up, he finally replied, “Her husband, Rory Sinclair, and my father were on a Lufthansa charter that went down near Oslo back in ’17 – ye must have been all of ten, so I wouldn’t surprised it ye dinna recall it. There weren’t any survivors. I was still down at Sandhurst at the time, and Mum was taking it very badly – her health was already poor by then.” He broke off as Mrs. Sinclair returned with a cozy-wrapped Brown Betty and wordlessly poured a large mug of tea each of them. Blade had a standing order that tea was not to be served in Mont Creag House in poncey china cups, save for formal dinner parties, but rather as God meant tea to be served: in stoneware mugs. Mrs. Sinclair retreated once more, and as Spazz was dropping sugar cubes into her tea, Blade went on.
“Rory was a Master Engineer in the RAF, a warrant officer, I guess you Yanks would call it. He and Dad were traveling together, on their way to investigate a catastrophic airframe failure on an AV prototype that had been in field testing in Norway.” Blade dropped six cubes into his own mug of tea, lifted it to his lips, and then nodded absently in approval. “Anyway, as Mum told me later, about a week after the funerals, Mrs. Sinclair – her first name is Emily, by the way – appears on our doorstep and announces that she has a proposal for Mum. They’d both become widows at precisely the same moment, and both of them were at loose ends. Mum needed someone to manage this place while Mrs. Sinclair needed something to do. Emily suggested that she run the house while Mum tried to put her life and her health back together.”
“I take it your mother was glad for the offer.”
“Aye, she was. She only had a few years left, but having Emily in the house made the time bearable. And of course, once Mum was gone, there was no way I was about to turn Emily out. So, she’s been here for almost eighteen years now.”
Just then, an orange-creamsicle blur flashed out of the shrubbery on the east side of the terrace, leaped, and made a landing on the table so precise that it barely disturbed the placesettings.
“Och, Wellington! Get off the table this instant, ye bloody orange-furred tyrant, ye!”
“Wellington? A tyrant? No fucking way!”
“Aye, a tyrant. He’s just being charming, reeling ye in like a gaffed salmon. Just wait until he’s certain he’s got ye properly landed.” The cat gave MacLaren a look that could only be described as baleful, then, deftly avoiding mugs, plates, and tableware, strode over to Maureen and slithered down into her lap. There he purred contentedly as she gently skritched away under his chin.
“I think Wellington’s adorable,” she said, smiling down at him. “He’s walked me to my room every night since I’ve been here and he greets me at my door in the morning, too. Better goddammed manners than some of the two-legged people who live here.” She lifted her mug and regarded Blade across the top of it before taking a slow sip. “And just for the record, what does Mrs. Sinclair think of him?”
“Since ye asked, I’ll have ye know that at least once a day, every day, Mrs. Sinclair serves that horrible creature fresh salmon – salmon Sandy catches out there” – he gestured at the placid waters of Loch Earn visible just past the terrace’s stone balustrade – “in his very own, personalized serving dish. A bone china dish, no less. Don’t let him fool ye for an instant. Wellington runs the kitchen the same way he does the rest of this house – with a velvet-clad iron paw. So don’t say I never warned ye about that fluffy villain. Now, if ye don’t mind….”
At that, rather than let their breakfast grow cold, they both set to, while Wellington made no attempt to move from Maureen’s lap. In Mrs. Sinclair’s opinion, a full Scottish breakfast wasn’t “full” unless it included a couple of Arbroath smokies, and now and then, when she imagined Blade wasn’t looking, Spazz slipped a morsel or two of the smoked haddock to the orange feline. The three of them ate in a companionable silence, then when they were finished, Maureen and MacLaren stood, picked up their mugs of tea, and walked over to the balustrade that surrounded the terrace. Wellington meanwhile toddled back into the house, no doubt in search of whatever additional goodies he could mooch from Mrs. Sinclair.
Settling on the balustrade, Spazz looked out across Loch Earn. September, always Scotland’s most beautiful month, was off to a spectacular start, and Maureen silently marveled at how perfectly the placid water reflected the cotton-wool clouds and azure-blue sky. Mont Creag House sat halfway down the loch’s south shore, perched some sixty feet above the water on a spur of rock thrust out from the slopes of Ben Vorlig. Leaning gingerly over the edge, she could see where the workers who had built the house back in 1863 had worked the sheer, almost vertical face of the rock, and added additional stonework and masonry to reinforce and support it.
Turning back to the house itself, she slowly scanned it from one great, gabled end to the other, taking in its sloped roofs, brooding dormers, and clustered chimneys. Dominating all of it was the massive, square, crenelated central tower. She took a long pull on her tea, then turned to look at Blade, who was standing a few feet away, his expression bemused.
“What is it, Maureen?”
“You were still in the Army when your mother died, right?”
“Aye, I was. Why d’ye ask?”
She waved one hand toward the house, a sweeping sort of gesture that included the grounds and whatever other property came with it. “I realize that you’re a cheap bastard and all, but I’m just wondering, what with death duties, taxes, and all that, how the hell you could have been able to afford to keep this goddamned place.”
Blade laughed easily. “Och, well, that was simple enough, ye ken. All I had to do was kill somebody….”